Tips and tricks from a first-time teaching assistant
Working abroad this year as a language assistant in Spain has, ironically, taught me a lot. I quickly learnt from my ‘observation week’ that Spanish kids can be rowdy and childish, but for the right reason: they want to learn. I can only imagine how stressful it feels trying to form a sentence in English in front of a native speaker and 20 or more of your peers.
It’s important for us to remember this as teachers, and understand that not every pupil will want to talk all of the time: not every class you’ll teach will be straightforward, in fact it might take a few weeks or even months to get a true feel for a class and for the class to warm to you as a teacher. But that’s okay!
So, how can you choose activities which work for any sort of class?
Gauging the type of class
Teaching a variety of age groups and abilities can be challenging: some classes are naturally loud and chatty, others remain silent from the fear of getting something wrong and embarrassing themselves in front of their classmates and teacher. After one or two lessons, you’ll start to understand what kind of group you’re teaching and therein discover which activities work best for them.
For loud classes
Try to avoid activities which will encourage even more noise, such as board games or pair discussions. Instead, divide up the class into 3 or 4 smaller groups and try different activities to see which works best. This is especially useful for larger classes (25 students or more). The British Council Teaching English website is especially useful for topic ideas that will provoke discussion.
For quiet classes
As a general rule, worksheets will help in this instance. If a student has time to think over their answer and write it down first, they’re more likely to be willing to share it (as they’re less likely to be wrong). Make sure that the worksheet isn’t too challenging for them, or it may fall a bit flat. If anything, start with activities which they’ll find easy and gradually give them more challenging material as they start to open up. ESL printables is a great starting-point for this, with plenty of great resources.
For classes where there’s a ‘stand-off’ of silence
Although it may be difficult for some of us, the best way to break the overwhelming silence is to choose a different pupil to answer each question you ask. Soon they’ll realise that they all have to participate and that there’s no shame in getting answers wrong. With time, they’ll be more willing to voluntarily participate and you’ll be faced with a more ‘standard class’.
For standard classes
In my experience, these are classes where one or two pupils tend to answer most of the questions. The rest will either sit in silence, appear confused most of the time, or distract each other by chatting. A solution which usually works is designating a different discussion question to different sections of the class, giving them a few minutes to come up with ideas. Once the time has passed, ask each group to share their ideas, making sure that someone other than the usual-answerers has a go.
Whatever type of class yours is, try not to change up the activities too much each time. The most important thing is for the students to feel confident enough to share their thoughts: you want them to get used to your teaching style and feel comfortable, and some stability will definitely put them at ease. We’ve all had that one class we dread (both as teachers and students)- it’s just about gauging the class type, choosing the right kinds of activities and watching as the pupils become increasingly confident in the classroom environment you’ve created.
A very rewarding process!